JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Oprah Winfrey opened a school Tuesday for disadvantaged girls, fulfilling a promise she made to former President Nelson Mandela six years ago and giving more than 150 students a chance for a better future.
"I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light," Winfrey said at a news conference.
Mandela, 88, attended the opening ceremony of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in the small town of Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg. He looked frail as he was helped on to the stage by his wife, Graca Machel, and Winfrey. But he beamed with joy and his speech resonated with pride.
"It is my hope that this school will become the dream of every South African girl and they will study hard and qualify for the school one day," he said in a firm voice.
Mandela thanked Winfrey for the "personal time and effort" she devoted to the school.
"This is not a distant donation but a project that clearly lies close to your heart," said the anti-apartheid leader who became multiracial South Africa's first democratically elected president in 1994.
Singers Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey, actors Sidney Poitier and Chris Tucker, and director Spike Lee also were in attendance. Each guest was asked to bring a personally inscribed book for the library.
Winfrey has said that she decided to build her own school because she wanted to feel closer to the people she was trying to help.
The $40 million academy aims to give 152 girls from deprived backgrounds a quality education in a country where schools are struggling to overcome the legacy of apartheid.
By educating girls, Winfrey said she hoped she could help "change the face of a nation."
"Girls who are educated are less likely to get HIV/AIDS, and in this country which has such a pandemic, we have to begin to change the pandemic," she said.
Many of the girls come from families affected by the disease, which has infected 5.4 million of the 48 million population and hit women disproportionately hard.
Winfrey referred repeatedly to her own impoverished childhood and said she was grateful that she at least had a good education, declaring this to be "the most vital aspect of my life."
"I was a poor girl who grew up with my grandmother, like so many of these girls, with no water and electricity," said the talk show host, dressed in a formal pink dress that reached the floor.
She vowed to make the academy the "best school in the world" and promised that she would continue to support the girls so they could attend any university in the world.
The idea for the school was born in 2000 at a meeting between Winfrey and Mandela. She said she decided to build the academy in South Africa rather than the United States out of love and respect for Mandela and because of her own African roots.
She said she planned a second school for boys and girls in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Many state-funded schools, especially in the sprawling townships that sprang up under white racist rule, are hopelessly overcrowded and lack even basic necessities such as books. They also are plagued by gang violence, drugs and a high rate of pregnancy among school girls.
Top-class study and sports facilities are available but are largely confined to private schools that are still dominated by the white minority, since they are too expensive for many black and mixed race South Africans.
Winfrey's academy received 3,500 applications from across the country. A total of 152 girls ages 11 and 12 were accepted.
To qualify, they had to show both academic and leadership potential and have a household income of no more than $787 a month. Eventually, the academy will accommodate 450 girls.
The 28-building campus boasts computer and science laboratories, a library and theater along with a wellness center.
Winfrey rejected suggestions the school was elitist and unnecessarily luxurious.
"If you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you," she said.
Lesego Tlhabanyane, 13, proudly wore her new green and white uniform at the ceremony to raise the South African flag.
"I would have had a completely different life is this hadn't happened to me. Now I get a life where I get to be treated like a movie star," she said.
Winfrey, who does not have children, said she was building a home for herself on the campus to spend time with the girls and be involved in their education.
"I love these girls with every part of my being. I didn't know you could feel this way about other people's children," she said.